Life After DNA Exoneration

After 27 years in prison, DNA exoneree Charles Chatman tries to pick up the pieces and catch up with a world that has left him behind

On January 14, 1981, Madalaine Magin, 52, arrived home from her nursing duties at Dallas' Methodist Hospital around 5:30 p.m. After her mother and sister died, leaving her alone in the Oak Cliff house they shared, she became the sole white resident on the block. As she usually did after work, she read the paper, made dinner and watched the news. She went to bed around 10:30 p.m.

According to court records, at some point during the night, she awoke and bolted upright in bed. There was a man standing in the doorway. She wasn't wearing her glasses but would later testify that from the dim light of an adjoining room she could make out he was black and wore a dark cap pulled down over his head. Standing with the light behind him, however, his face was shadowed.

Magin grew shocked, scared, asking him who he was, how he got in. But he said nothing. She pulled a sheet up to her chin, which he pulled back down before he removed his pants and shoes. As she lay there motionless, he pulled off her pajama pants and proceeded to rape her. Keeping her eyes tightly shut, Magin pleaded with him to leave her alone. Instead he made conversation, asking when she'd last had sex. She didn't say, but the truth was never. She had never married and was a virgin. Some time elapsed, and she begged the man to let her go to the bathroom. He did but followed, standing next to the mirror while she sat on the toilet. Then he raped her again.

Michelle Moore, a Dallas County public defender and president of the Innocence Project of Texas' board of directors, represented Charles Chatman in her quest for freedom.
MARK GRAHAM
Michelle Moore, a Dallas County public defender and president of the Innocence Project of Texas' board of directors, represented Charles Chatman in her quest for freedom.
Lafreda Williams, Chatman's niece, has been helping him readjust since his release.
MARK GRAHAM
Lafreda Williams, Chatman's niece, has been helping him readjust since his release.

Afterward, she told him she would give him all of her money, anything, if he would just please leave. Naked from the waist down, she walked into the dining room and handed him the $15 in her purse. He demanded jewelry and a gun. She told him she had neither. Angry, he ordered her to lie on the floor, face-down, and put her hands behind her back. He used two scarves from her bedroom to tie her wrists and ankles, and while she lay there bound, he walked through the house opening drawers, looking into cupboards and searching closets. After all the banging and shuffling subsided, she heard him leaving the house, hauling his plunder with him. Only after she heard a car driving away did she manage to untie her wrists, crawl to the phone and dial the police.

A few days later at around 9:30 a.m., Charles Chatman was walking to a bus stop in a neighborhood a few miles away from Magin's house. Since his mother died several years before and he'd never had a relationship with his father, Chatman lived with one of his older sisters, Claudette Smith, who had two children of her own. Chatman had dropped out of Roseville High School in the 10th grade and was serving a four-year probated sentence for burglarizing a house. He worked part-time helping his sister clean restaurants at night, but he'd left the house that morning determined to find another job, hopefully as a forklift operator.

As he and his friends neared the bus stop, a police cruiser approached and an officer got out and asked for identification. Seconds later, Chatman was handcuffed and on his way to jail. He assumed it had something to do with his probation. He learned later that a woman had picked his photograph out of a lineup and accused him of raping her. It seemed so preposterous, so untrue, that he figured he'd be out within days. But on January 29, several days after his arrest, he found himself standing in a live lineup with a group of 20-something black men. When he saw the middle-aged white woman on the other side of the glass, he recognized her. He'd seen her in the neighborhood he used to live in, before he moved in with his sister.

"I knew who she was, and I knew I hadn't done anything to her, so I wasn't worried about it," Chatman would say later. "I had no front teeth—I got them knocked out playing football—she should have been able to see that."

But when Magin picked Chatman's photo out of a lineup, she said she recognized him from the neighborhood. And, looking at him in the live lineup, she told investigators she was certain he was the man who raped her. Chatman was charged with aggravated rape and spent the next seven months in the county jail awaiting trial. He recalls seeing his defense attorney once during that time. At one point, in late summer of 1981, he became so frustrated that he called the attorney, Pat Robertson, collect. "I'm glad you called," Chatman recalls the lawyer saying. "Because the trial is tomorrow."

Robertson doesn't remember that conversation, but he does recall the case. "Could I have done anything else other than what I did? I don't know," he says. "Back in those days, a white lady takes the stand and points a finger and says, 'That's the guy,' he's dead meat."

Chatman also phoned his sister, who knew that he had worked in her cleaning business on the night of the rape and would swear to as much in court. He couldn't reach anyone else in the family, and besides, most of them would be working.

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